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A New Jersey Mastodon
Originally Published By
New Jersey State Museum

By Glenn L. Jepsen

Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

What are mastodons? They are an extinct group of mammals closely related to modern elephants (Loxodonta of Africa and Elephants of Asia) and resembling them in marry ways. There are also many differences. Mastodon ancestors appeared abruptly in the fossil record in northern Africa about 50 million Years ago in late Eocene time. (See diagram). These boar-sized animals (Moeritherium), swamp-dwelling and rather tapir-like, form a basal part of the vast and complicated family tree of the proboscideans (animals with trunks) which spread to all the continents except Australia and Antarctica. One large branch of this hypothetical tree represents the mastodons. They reached North America via Siberia and the Bering Strait land bridge in Miocene time, approximately 25 million years ago. They had been here a long time when the first human immigrants to America used the same bridge from the Old World to the New, probably less than 50,000 years ago. Perhaps several waves of migrating masto- dons and people came to this country by the same route.

In America the mastodons evolved into several divergent forms, or branches of the family tree, and some had curious flat shovel-like tusks in the lower jaw. The word "mastodon" however, usually refers to the end member of the lineage, the kind of mastodon that lived during the Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch and preferred the temperate and cold forests rather than warm or hot regions.

Mastodons were all dead when the early Spaniards arrived in America, and the Indians had no reliable folk lore about the existence of big elephant-like animals. Indians told the white men that large fossil bones belonged to giants who lived in the earth and perished upon exposure to light and air. This myth explained the fact that the bones were in the ground and the none of the living animals were seen on the earth. How else could the dead carcasses get into the ground – close to the surface?

In 1519 Bernal Diaz del Castillo, an officer in the army of Cortez, was given a large bone, probably part of a mastodon leg, by Indians from the village of Tlascala, near Mexico City, as evidence of the former presence there of giants. Diaz accepted this explanation, which continued to be a common belief for nearly two hundred years, and sent the bone to Spain "for his majesty's inspection." This was probably the first fossil to be noticed by Europeans in North America, and the first American fossil to be taken to Europe. Mastodon bones are still being exposed by erosion in the stream valleys near Tlascala and, a few years ago, I saw several teeth and dark brown bones of the "underground giants" in a glass case in the lobby of an inn in the village. Perhaps Diaz saw some of the same bones four and one-half centuries ago.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, before paleontology was developed as a science, great giants and horrible dragons were reasonable explanations for the "facts" at hand. Such dark and oppressive supersitions vanish as knowledge throws light upon our thoughts. In 1706 the eminent clergyman Cotton Mather and Governor J. Dudley of Massachusetts had an interesting correspondence about mastodon teeth and bones that had been found in the Hudson River Valley. These relics were of course regarded by many people as the remains of giants, drowned in the Biblical flood, who would "be seen again at or after the conflagration, further to be examined." Other people thought that such "hideous diabolical giants" were still living in the forests, but this view slowly gave way, during the 18th century, to the novel idea of extinctions.

Some of the most famous and far-traveled mastodon bones were dug up from a mudhole in southern New York state in 1801 under the direction of the noted painter of portraits of George Washington, Charles Willson Peale. His amateur excavation crew, mainly farmers, made a festival of the work and removed enough bones for a complete skeleton. This assembled and reconstructed mastodon was the first fossil skeleton to be mounted in America (and probably the second in the world). Artist Peale and his sons, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian, exhibited the skeleton for many years in their Philadelphia museum. Later it was taken apart and sold to King Louis Philippe of France and then to a museum in Darmstadt, Germany, where it is today.

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